thu 25/07/2024

Madam Butterfly, Mid Wales Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Madam Butterfly, Mid Wales Opera

Madam Butterfly, Mid Wales Opera

1950s Nagasaki comes to Tewkesbury in style

'Madam Butterfly': 'Real opera sung by human beings in unhelpful surroundings'

There are several types of garden opera, and there are also, happily, several types of cinema opera. You can rustle your Werthers through a relay from the Met and endure the touchy-feely interviews with panting mega-sopranos just out of Verdi’s “Sempre libera”; or you can pick up a small touring company like Mid Wales Opera at the Pontardawe Arts Centre or the Aberdare Coliseum, and watch real opera sung by human beings in unhelpful surroundings.

I know which I prefer; but then I have a weakness for adaptability. And this MWO Madam Butterfly, which I caught up with at the Roses Theatre in Tewksbury, is a prime example of the genre. 

Local theatres rarely help singers and they practically never help orchestras. Like most of its kind, The Roses has dry acoustics and no pit, so that even the 11-piece band to which Lara Taylor has reduced Puccini’s refined and varied orchestra has a tendency to smother voices – or at least words – that are getting so little help from their surroundings. It goes without saying that the production is limited by the need to fit it into whatever space it may happen to encounter on its travels. In fact Madam Butterfly tours well in this respect, because it only needs one set. But it remains Grand Opera, demanding biggish voices and grand gestures that sit oddly in this utterly un-posh, unfrilly environment. 

One remarkable thing about Stephen Barlow’s production and Yannis Thavoris’s designs is how well they get round these minor local difficulties. There is, it’s true, an element of the prosaic about Madam Butterfly: the whisky-drinking and the Americana, the sailor suits and the nice wife at the end. But Barlow stretches these details, with the lightest of tweaks, to enhance the sense of alienation and disillusion.  

The most trivial aspect of this is the updating. We’re still in Nagasaki, but it’s the 1950s (yet again), and Cio-Cio San’s affectations of Westernism in Act II extend to a television set which (a nice provincial detail) she turns on as background, barely watching it. She assumes semi-occidental dress at this point, very logical, and highly effective later when – with ritual death approaching – she goes back oriental. The adaptation of the Japanese house as a suburban bungalow, with a PanAm poster in Japanese on the roof, is no director’s whim; it exactly follows the heroine’s emotional trajectory. 

The production’s main virtue, all the same, is its observation of detail. Not once is one distracted by smart or surreal imagery. Instead, care has gone into the things you don’t notice until they go wrong: the placing and movement of the singers, the way they face or occasionally touch each other, the moments of stillness. A symptom of this (I’m quite serious) is Charlotte Stephenson’s Kate Pinkerton, the best I’ve seen. She appears for only 10 minutes, sings about three lines, yet her role is crucial, and is usually muffed. This young singer exactly catches the shocked helplessness of the poor wife pitched into a tragic situation unforgivably created by the man she loves. Many other minutiae of the production are in this class. They add up to a subtle and touching performance which easily overcomes the topographical disadvantages. 

The casting is strong, if in some ways uneven. It’s a joy to hear Meeta Raval ([pictured above] a finalist in the recent Cardiff Singer of the World) in a complete role, which proves that she is not only a very talented singer but a vocal actress of considerable presence. The role is double cast, and Tewksbury would have heard Stephanie Corley but for illness; so that was one more piece of adaptability. As Pinkerton, Seán Ruane plays down the anti-Americanism, in line with Barlow’s insistence (in a very intelligent programme note) that the work isn’t essentially about imperialism, though it may be hard to escape that particular nuance (I’m still waiting, without excitement, for my first Butterfly in Baghdad). Ruane’s voice is too reedy for my taste, but he achieves the near impossible of an at least semi-sympathetic Pinkerton, despite the lack of warmth in the sound.  

Nicholas Cleobury conducts briskly, not lingering over those moments where Puccini places too much faith in plain sentiment

Wyn Pencarreg gives a solid, well-sung Sharpless, avuncular in intention, bungling in practice; Amy J Payne is a touching Suzuki, Stuart Haycock an excellent - that is loathsome - Goro, all obsequious smiles and cringing gestures. Simon Wilding (Bonze), Matthew Sprange (Yamadori) and Henry Grant Kerswell (Commissioner) put in brief but effective cameo appearances. 

Nicholas Cleobury conducts briskly, not lingering over those moments (especially at the end of Act II) where Puccini places a bit too much faith in plain sentiment, but making what richness is possible with such a small, albeit accomplished band. Lara Taylor goes, conventionally enough, for string and wind quintets plus electric piano with attachments, which condemns her to many awkward balances, too much flute and bassoon, not enough succulence. Perhaps the next arranger might try a bigger string group, a couple of woodwind, and more drastic orchestral effects on the keyboard. In the end, of course, the task is worthy but impossible. Puccini was a colourist as well as a melodist, and Cézanne on a postcard will never approach the real thing. Yet one can’t do without postcards.

The production's main virtue is its observation of detail. Not once is one distracted by smart or surreal imagery

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Anyone singing Butterfly - who is hardly ever off stage - deserves a lot more than one sentence of a review.

We saw this in Brecon and it was excellent. Butterfly was so well performed and deserved to ovations she recived. The tenor role was a little quiet at first but overall it too was very good. The orchestra were well conducted and music just right.

Saw this last night in Margate - it was absolutely breathtaking - definitely doesn't disappoint - the detail on set was fine too

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